What are the implications of carrying trauma in your genes? You enter the world twice-injured, first by the knowledge that your ancestors were reduced to nothing but animals due to the color of their skin, and again by the acute awareness that you share that skin. You inherit the ongoing struggle to reclaim humanity for yourself, your ancestors and your descendants. The struggle for your humanity is fought in part by defining and defending your culture; what are the things, tangible and intangible, that preserve the experiences of your people? In America, the discourse on black culture is a study in forced migration and denied assimilation — or what most Americans call slavery.
The trauma of slavery persists whenever I hear about the Michael Browns and Eric Garners of our community. A surge of anger rises from my chest, curls my lips, and then I remember the first time I saw Amistad. It was a turning point for me in understanding and accepting my blackness. I was about 15 years old and I was babysitting my three younger siblings while my parents were out. It was an R-rated movie, which I wasn’t supposed to be watching.
My brother was in his room playing video games, the baby was sleeping and my sister was in our room. I had been flipping through channels absentmindedly, staving off boredom and ignoring chores I was supposed to be doing. The image of black bodies bunked in narrow rows on a dark ship passing forward a newborn baby, shackled hand by shackled hand, stunned me. Up until this point, my primary education about slavery was what I received in school and a few awkward conversations with my parents. It was a tidy, clinical education, best summed up as: black people were slaves and then they weren’t. Frederick Douglass gave a speech, some white people listened, the Civil War was fought and Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves. Simple, linear, detached. That was my fundamental understanding of slavery as a child, even as I experienced prejudice and racism growing up in Staten Island. Slavery and its implications didn’t become personal for me until that night, as I snuck and watched Amistad with the sound on as low as possible.
In the night, a baby was born. A black baby, born into captivity on a ship in the middle of a violent storm. I wondered, what was going to happen to that baby. “Where would the movie take this baby?” In the next scene, slave traders slid shackled slaves overboard expeditiously, slave, after slave, after slave. I didn’t know why and knowing wouldn’t have really mattered. The horror was still the same. The crisp sound of chains sliding against the wooden decks chilled my bones. Their crying must have muted the splash of the bodies as they went overboard. I felt my throat almost close and the warmth receded from my cheeks. My eyes, welling with tears, could not look away. In the next scene, I saw the mother holding her baby. I saw her jump overboard, baby in her arms.
These are the images that endured with me for the rest of the movie. Sure, it ended well. The slaves fought back. There was a trial and there was “justice.” Cinque returned to Africa, clad in resplendent white and with his kinsmen. But I knew even then how isolated an occurrence this was and the feel-good ending did nothing to erase the images of slavery from my mind. I learned more about slavery in those few minutes than I did in elementary or intermediate school. Slavery claimed lives before they even began. Slavery was the widescale erasure of personhood; a brutal conversion into chattel. And for the first time in my life, slavery was my own history. Someone swinging on a branch way high up in my own family tree was on a ship like that, enduring those horrors and countless others in a world not of her choosing.
I was angry. I was hurt. I ached for a community to share this pain with. I wondered how my parents weren’t angry all the time. And I knew I couldn’t talk to them about it because it’s just not something we talked about. As devout Jehovah’s Witnesses, my parents taught that slavery was just another of man’s evils that would be righted in a new, perfect paradise. But that kind of idealism would never placate me again. No scripture would ever speak louder than the darkness of my skin. I went to bed that night with a deep, confusing sense of personal shame and the first tremors of rage. These were my ancestors. These are my people. I am black.